- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

TURIN — Ready or not, the Winter Olympics have arrived.

Is Turin ready? The official view, predictably, is that it is. Or will be. The unofficial consensus supports “or not.” But only if you are a fussbudget who considers such details as ongoing construction, directionally challenged bus drivers, airport snafus and the lack of a tangible Olympics atmosphere in this, the largest city ever to hold the Winter Games.

Unlike a few weeks ago, at least there is snow on the mountains. Or so goes the rumor. You can’t see the mountains because of the smog. The weather has been surprisingly balmy in the city, although rain or snow is in the forecast.

With diverted flights and baggage delays (that is, the baggage that actually arrived), the airport has been chaos central all week. In at least one post-flight foul-up, several members of the Russian and Slovakian women’s teams waited nearly an hour for their bags.

At the Piazza Castello, site of the medals ceremonies, workers yesterday continued their frantic game of beat-the-clock. Construction continued elsewhere. Bus drivers, some imported from other places in Italy, still need navigation lessons.

“At this stage we do not face any structural problems, but there are still a lot of small details to fix and monitor in the few days before the opening of the Games,” Valentino Castellani, head of the Turin organizing committee, said yesterday. “We are ready and committed.”

Turin won the bid in 1999. Apparently, nearly seven years of preparation time doesn’t go as far as it used to.

As Jim McCarthy, the U.S. Olympic Team chef de mission (big cheese) wryly noted yesterday, “What we’re seeing is the well-repeated last-minute nature of Italians.” He added, “Once the athletes arrive and the Games begin, and we’re past all the skirmishing, is when the magic begins.”

On Monday, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said, “The final stretch is always the most difficult. We knew here and there that there are still issues to be solved. By the time of the opening ceremony, I expect everything to be solved.”

The opening ceremony is tonight. It will take place at the Stadio Comunale before a likely full house of 65,000, “issues here and there” notwithstanding. The show, highlighted by the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, is expected to last as long as three hours.

A large crowd came out to watch a rehearsal of the ceremony on Wednesday night, a rare and perhaps hopeful sign of Olympic life. Except for the red-orange banners and fence coverings that add some occasional color to the urban landscape, it appears to be business as usual in a city that numbers almost one million inhabitants.

It doesn’t help that the mountain venues, located several hours away, gives everything a spread-out feeling.

Ticket sales were slow until this week, when a surge of buying sent the number over the 700,000 mark. About a million tickets in all are available. However, much like for a minor league baseball team, thousands of tickets have been distributed at a discount. This is good news for the many Italian school children who are reportedly the main beneficiaries of such a deal.

But McCarthy, who first visited Turin a year ago and is here for the fourth time, said he sees a big difference from before.

“It’s really starting to get a buzz,” he said. “Going downtown, you feel a sense that the community is starting to feel the Olympic fever and get into the Games. Turin is working very hard to use the Olympics as a promotional event for the city itself. The wrapping is coming off.”

A general apathy seems to have engulfed the Games everywhere. They have been described as the “Stealth Olympics,” and a hot topic is whether “American Idol” will win out in head-to-head TV competition twice a week.

Regardless of how the locals view the games, there is supposed to be no ambivalence about security. However, media members who have attended prior Olympics said security measures, at least for them, seem more lax than previous Games. At some of the Media Villages, residents were freely going in and out without a credential check.

Security at the athletes’ villages and the venues is presumed to be much tighter.

“We feel quite secure,” McCarthy said.

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